SMITHFIELD – In case you hadn’t noticed, there is a consumer run on guns and ammunition in this country amid an impassioned debate about gun control. Whether it’s fair or not may be open to question, but much of the hoarding is blamed on gun zealots worried about a crackdown in the wake of some insanely violent and tragic episodes of gun violence.
I am not one of them. I’m not planning on buying a handgun, and I don’t have anything against people who are, but the fierce battle over gun control made me dangerously curious.
Is there anything inherently nefarious about guns? I wondered. Would the bad mojo rub off on me if I put one in my hand and shot it – something I’d never done before?
I started looking for an accomplice who could help me satisfy my twisted desire to find out.
Like anyone attempting to satisfy a twisted desire, I started with Google. I hunted for the phone numbers of firearms instructors and shooting ranges. I left messages and waited. Then I waited some more.
After a couple of days, the phone rang. It was Daria Bruno. She’s a certified firearms instructor who runs her own business, DB Live Fire, and she’s the only female radio personality in the country who does a talk show for gun enthusiasts. It’s called “Lock, Stock & Daria,” and it’s on WHJJ on Saturday mornings.
I could spend a lot of time explaining Bruno’s personality and political leanings when it comes to firearms. But this is probably enough: She’s the kind of person who grins with mischievous delight at the prospect of seeing a firearms neophyte – me – shoot a whole bunch of different guns, including the most powerful handgun on earth, for the very first time.
I was starting to wonder what I’d gotten myself into.
We made plans to meet in the parking lot of a hardware store near Apple Valley Mall. She pulled up in a coral-colored Chevy Suburban and I followed her to an indoor shooting range, discreetly located off the beaten path. It was like a concrete bunker. It was damp and cool in there and smelled like somebody’s cellar. But you could tell it felt like home to Bruno.
The back of the Suburban was loaded with firearms of all kinds packed in innocuous-looking valises that resembled travel bags. It took more than one trip to bring the bags inside, and they were very, very heavy.
Inside, Bruno introduced me to a friend, Bob Senerchia. He’s a retired beer distributor who’s been shooting guns since he was 10 years old. He’s also the guy with the most powerful handgun in the world, and he was going to let me shoot it.
You’ve probably heard that phrase about the most powerful handgun before – practically everybody has – because Clint Eastwood made it famous in the iconic 1971 movie “Dirty Harry.”
“Do ya feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?” he said, as he hovered over the bad guy wielding a .44 Magnum revolver with a barrel as long as his forearm.
Sadly, one of the first things I learned from Bruno is that advances in handgun technology have made Dirty Harry and his .44 Magnum an anachronism. The “Dirty Harry Gun,” as she calls it, no longer holds the title of most powerful handgun. Dirty Harry, it turns out, is a dinosaur. Obsolete. Yesterday’s news.
Now the top gun is the Smith & Wesson .50-caliber, a muscular, silvery hand-cannon that will fire .410-gauge shotgun shells if you’re cool to paying $3 each for regular, jacketed bullets. Apparently, a big wad of lead can be very expensive.
It’s the gun that Senerchia brought along with him, and the last one I would shoot on the day Bruno escorted me to the range. But don’t forget about Dirty Harry just yet. Just so I could feel the difference between what used to be the most powerful handgun in the world and the current title-holder, Bruno also bought along her Dirty Harry Gun, which looked impressive indeed.
One of the first things Bruno taught me about shooting firearms is that I watch way too much television. She could tell because as soon as I started gripping a gun, I instinctively began triggering the weapon with the index finger of my right hand, which apparently comes from overexposure to the cinematic arts.
“You’re being Hollywood,” she told me. I took it as a compliment.
Bruno gave me a crash course in shooting, guided me on proper stance and how to grip a weapon correctly. She taught me how to sight the target by lining up a U-shaped wedge of metal at the near end of the barrel with a T-shaped wedge on the opposite end. She figured out that I favor my right eye the same way I favor my right hand and told me it was necessary to check because you generally want to aim with your best eye.
Before we got started Bruno gave me a special pair of electronic earmuffs designed to baffle sudden bursts of high-decibel sound. When Bruno spoke, she sounded as if she was talking through a tin can, but then she clapped her hands and I didn’t hear anything.
We started out small. She picked out a 10-round, .22-caliber Smith & Wesson revolver that fit not-so-neatly in the palm of my hand. I positioned myself in one of a half-dozen stalls that reminded me of one of those Dutch half-doors that Mr. Ed, the TV horse, used to stick his head out of when he wanted to talk to Wilbur. The open part looked out on a rectangular quadrant of enclosed concrete. The back wall was made of recycled tire rubber that prevents ricochet.
Bruno took out a paper target with an image on it that looked like a bowling ball, except it was fatter on the bottom. She attached it to a clip above my head. The clip hung from a wire and when Bruno hit a button the clip and the target suddenly reeled toward the back wall with a distinct hissing sound.
Even though the .22 is supposed to be a small handgun, I was surprised by how heavy it was. I tried to remember everything Bruno told me about sighting the target and gripping the weapon.
What surprised me even more was how hard it was to keep my hands from shaking as I tried to keep the sights on the bull's-eye. I consider myself a physically healthy person, but for all my effort I couldn’t keep the gun completely still. You hear people talk about how hard it is to hit a moving target, but the truth is, if the target’s not moving, the shooter is. So I tried to pick a fleeting moment when everything seemed to be lined up perfectly and I squeezed the trigger.
Despite the ear baffles, you can still hear a gun go off.
The recoil wasn’t too bad and it wasn’t as noisy as I thought would be. But the bullet didn’t go anywhere near where I expected it to. I shot all 10 rounds and kept listening to Bruno’s sage advice. Sometimes I got closer to what I was aiming at, sometimes I missed the target altogether. At 20 measly feet!
Bruno says it just goes to show you how unrealistically the use of firearms is portrayed in popular culture. You see gangstas doing drive-bys or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid firing backwards over their shoulders at the lawmen on their tail. Nobody in real life hits what they’re aiming at in those kinds of situations. It’s hard enough to stand still, point a gun and hit what you’re pointing at.
After the .22, we upped the ante. I shot a Springfield Armory 9 mm semiautomatic, the kind you spring-load with a clip by pulling back an ammunition chamber behind the barrel. I shot a Ruger .45-caliber semiautomatic, a gun Bruno tells me is the firearm that won World War I. I shot a Smith & Wesson .45-caliber revolver and, yes, I shot the Dirty Harry Gun.
It’s tough to explain the mixture of stunned excitement and plain fear that ripple through your body when the controlled explosion of a .44 Magnum shell takes place a few feet in front of your face. “Wow!” I said, feeling my knees quivering.
On one of my first tries, I scored a hit on a humanoid silhouette target right between the eyes, but I didn’t necessarily get any better with more practice. This different target was several times the size of the smaller bowling balls, but sometimes I missed it completely.
Another thing I learned about firearms is that some gun enthusiasts like to give their weapons pet names. Senerchia calls his Smith & Wesson .50-caliber Freddy, after Freddy “Boom Boom” Cannon, a pop singer from the 1960s.
Senerchia picks up Freddy and positions a red circle target the size of a baseball at three times the distance of mine, raises the gun to eye level and aims. He fires off three rounds in quick succession. The first two miss the red ball by a mere inch or two. The last hits the colored part dead center
The explosive sound of each round is deafening. I feel a wave of percussive force hit my body when the gun goes off, and a tingling in my ear drum.
After this incredible display of marksmanship, Senerchia hands me the shiny mini-cannon of polished steel.
The sheer size of the gun, its weight and explosive recoil make it the most difficult of all the guns I fired with Bruno and Sernerchia that day, but also the most fun.
I fired several rounds from the most powerful handgun in the world that damaged nothing more than a paper target depicting a humanoid silhouette. But somehow I couldn’t help feeling sorry for Dirty Harry.